The intrinsic evil of slavery and the death penalty?

The intrinsic evil of slavery and the death penalty? December 30, 2010

I have been planning this post since Christmas, but was taking some time to get my thoughts in order.  Given the recent discussion here about the death penalty, I decided to shift the focus of my question to a pair of closely related questions:

1)  Does the Church now teach that slavery is an intrinsic evil?

2) Should the Church teach that the death penalty is an intrinsic evil?

Let me be clear that I understand that the Church does not, currently, teach that the death penalty is an intrinsic evil.  However, given the substantial evolution in the past two decades in Church teaching (one need only read the article on capital punishment in the old Catholic Encyclopedia to see the depth of this change), and given the arguments advanced by some theologians such as Cristian Brugger, I believe that this is a question worth discussing.  This possibility is strongly opposed by some theologians, most notably by the late Cardinal Avery Dulles.  (Hat tip to Zach for this link!)

The question of slavery is equally complicated.  The following passage from Veritatis Splendor seems to imply strongly that slavery is an intrinsic evil:

Reason attests that there are objects of the human act which are by their nature “incapable of being ordered” to God, because they radically contradict the good of the person made in his image. These are the acts which, in the Church’s moral tradition, have been termed “intrinsically evil” (intrinsece malum): they are such always and per se, in other words, on account of their very object, and quite apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances. Consequently, without in the least denying the influence on morality exercised by circumstances and especially by intentions, the Church teaches that “there exist acts which per se and in themselves, independently of circumstances, are always seriously wrong by reason of their object”.131    The Second Vatican Council itself, in discussing the respect due to the human person, gives a number of examples of such acts: “Whatever is hostile to life itself, such as any kind of homicide, genocide, abortion, euthanasia and voluntary suicide; whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, physical and mental torture and attempts to coerce the spirit; whatever is offensive to human dignity, such as subhuman    living    conditions,    arbitrary    imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution and trafficking in women and children; degrading conditions of work which treat labourers as mere instruments of profit, and not as free responsible persons: all these and the like are a disgrace, and so long as they infect human civilization they contaminate those who inflict them more than those who suffer injustice, and they are a negation of the honour due to the Creator”. (Veritatis Splendor 80, boldface added)

Again, this interpretation has been strongly opposed by Avery Dulles. (Subscription required.)  In particular, he contests this reading of Veritatis Splendor.

In my own reading about these issues, the arguments against such  teaching seem to fall into two categories:

1) Substantive:  arguments based on scripture, tradition and natural law which argue that the death penalty and/or slavery are not intrinsically evil (but which does not discount the fact that they are in practice gravely evil and should be eliminated).

2) Procedural:  by this I mean an argument that the Church cannot teach this because it never taught this and so would contradict itself, causing great scandal and confusion.  (Again, hat tip to Zach for making this argument explicitly about the death penalty.)  Avery Dulles makes this sort of argument about slavery.

With regards to the substantive arguments:  I find the argument about the death penalty narrowly applied as self-defense to be the most cogent.  However, I would set against this a very powerful passage from Evangelium Vitae:

And yet God, who is always merciful even when he punishes, “put a mark on Cain, lest any who came upon him should kill him” (Gen 4:15). He thus gave him a distinctive sign, not to condemn him to the hatred of others, but to protect and defend him from those wishing to kill him, even out of a desire to avenge Abel’s death. Not even a murderer loses his personal dignity, and God himself pledges to guarantee this. (EV 9, boldface added)

This passage (and the accompanying story about Cain and Abel) suggests that human dignity is never trumped, even by self-defense.  I would note that this story is set among a nomadic people who do not have a modern prison system, so the very issues of self-defense and the death penalty are in play.  But God himself rejects this option.

The substantive arguments about slavery point to scripture passages that seem to support slavery (particularly turns of phrase in St. Paul’s letters) and a quasi-argument from silence:  Jesus never condemns slavery, and the Old Testament strongly supports it.   Avery Dulles gives a half-hearted defense by trying to draw distinctions between black slavery in the Americas and Roman slavery, but I found his description of Roman slavery to be too rose-colored to be credible.  Again, in response I would appeal to the inalienable dignity of the human person:  that the person is always a subject and never an object, and that slavery, by its very nature, reduces the person to an object, irrespective of the ephemeral differences in treatment and status between times and places.

I am unimpressed by the “procedural” arguments:  reading Cardinal Dulles I really felt that these were a form of special pleading, one which does not give due credence to the continual unfolding of our understanding of God’s revelation.  As Archbishop Chaput put it, “humans learn the hard way, but eventually we do learn”. (Hat tip to Morning’s Minon at dotcommonweal for the quote.  Can you source this for me?)

With regards to both the substantive and procedural arguments, I would be interested in hearing more.

Browse Our Archives

Close Ad